A Tallmadge or Woodhull by any other name: TURN historical family trees

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There seems to be quite a bit of confusion surrounding TURN’s curious habit of misnaming “real” historical characters throughout Season 1 — especially family members immediately related to the show’s protagonists.  This post is intended to straighten out the issue with the help of some handy charts and other primary sources, since we’ve received so many questions about it.  (If you’re not familiar with the rather tedious ins and outs of genealogy, you might want to grab a shot of espresso before reading on.)

Episode 9 of TURN, “Against Thy Neighbor,” introduced yet another example: The good Reverend Nathanial Tallmadge, fiery patriot and dutiful father to our favorite dragoon major. His refreshingly straightforward character is pretty much impossible not to like. If his speech from Episode 9 doesn’t rouse your inner American Revolutionary, you’re probably a Loyalist then I don’t know what will.

NathanialTallmadge_gif1 NathanialTallmadge_gif2

Benjamin Tallmadge outlines his immediate family tree, which includes the proper names of his father and brothers, on page one of his Memoirs. Click to enlarge.
Benjamin Tallmadge outlines his immediate family tree, which includes the proper names of his father and brothers, on page one of his Memoirs. Click to enlarge.

However, if you’re a viewer who is interested in historical accuracy (and you likely wouldn’t be here if you weren’t), you might be surprised to learn that Benjamin Tallmadge’s real father — who was indeed the pastor of Setauket’s Presbyterian church and opposed the loyalist occupation of his town — was also named Benjamin Tallmadge. (Benjamin Tallmadge Senior, of course.)  In fact, there is no “Nathanial Tallmadge” in Major Tallmadge’s immediate family tree.

Thankfully, Benjamin Tallmadge himself clears things up for us on the very first page of his memoirs (pictured at right).  In a similar case of mistaken identity, it was actually Benjamin’s eldest brother William, not his brother Samuel, who perished as a prisoner of the British Army in 1776.

The Tallmadges, however, aren’t the only Long Island family that might look funny to any genealogists who happen to watch TURN.  The Woodhull family tree is also beset by a number of identity (and existential) crises.  While Abraham Woodhull did have an older brother who died just before the Revolutionary War began, his name was Richard, not Thomas.  Similarly, when Abraham finally did get married and have children (which wasn’t until 1781, as seen on the Historical Timeline), he did have a son, but he was named Jesse, not Thomas.  There is no Thomas Woodhull anywhere in Abraham’s immediate family tree.

The two charts below contain biographical information about the branch of the Woodhull family tree that’s of most interest to TURN viewers. Note that there’s no “Thomas” to be found anywhere.  The images are screencaps from longislandsurnames.com, a site I highly recommend to any TURN fans who want to investigate the family histories of Long Island revolutionaries for themselves. You might want to bookmark the site if you’re trying to keep track of the multiple families mentioned on TURN.

Woodhull_LIS_judgerichard
Genealogical information on Judge Richard Woodhull and his children (Abraham and his siblings). Click to visit the full page. Source: longislandsurnames.com
Woodhull_LIS_abraham
Genealogical information on Abraham Woodhull and his children. Click to visit the full page. Source: longislandsurnames.com

In both of these family cases, the relatives in question “did” exist, which makes TURN’s naming conventions even stranger. Benjamin’s clergyman father, Benjamin’s brother who died in British custody, Abraham’s son, and Abraham’s older brother who died prior to the start of the war were all real people in the historical record. But for some reason, the names for all these “real-life” characters have been swapped out for fictional ones in the show.

As the keeper of this blog and all the social media accounts connected with it, I often get asked why the writers and showrunners of TURN would alter history in the ways that they do.  (For example: “Why would they change the names of real people like Benjamin Tallmadge’s father?”) In the case of the martyred ‘Samuel’ Tallmadge, the show implies (in Episode 6) that he was the inspiration for the first half of Abraham Woodhull’s “Samuel Culpeper” alias, so that’s likely why the writers swapped the names of the Tallmadge brothers.  As for the others… well, since historical accuracy is evidently not a factor, your speculations are as good as mine!

Nor do I know why Abraham Woodhull’s alias is named “Culpeper” in the show, and not “Culper,” which was obviously the real name at the heart of the eponymous Culper Spy Ring. Since it was Washington’s suggestion in the show, it might have to do with his connection to Culpeper county, Virginia. Either way, I’m assuming that will be changed/explained in a future episode. Perhaps these other naming conventions will be, too. Hey, even MORE reason to call for a second season!

Bonus: “Abe and Anna”

tumblr_n5sya9ZUe41tygvn9o1_500While we’re on the topic of real-life genealogy of TURN characters, I’d like to take the time to gently remind viewers of the historical ages and marital situations surrounding Abraham Woodhull and Anna Strong, who have become quite… involved on screen.  (Several blog followers via Twitter and email have asked about this issue as well!)

Both the TV show and the TURN Origins comic imply that Abe and Anna as roughly the same age and grew up as children together in Setauket.  In reality, Anna was ten years older than Abraham.  She married her husband Selah in 1760, when she was twenty and Abe was just ten years old.  (Needless to say, there was never any promise of marriage between the two.)  Anna was pretty well invested in her marriage, too: by 1776 she and Selah had six children, with more to follow soon (some of whom had fantastically patriotic names, as seen on Anna’s family page).

Of course, it’s no surprise that TURN (or any TV drama, for that matter) is chasing after sexual tension in hopes of pleasing a modern-day audience.  But just in case there was any lingering doubt: the on-screen romantic relationship between Abraham Woodhull and Anna Strong has no historical basis whatsoever.

Well! There’s nothing like hard genealogy if you’re looking for a cold dose of historical reality.  On a more exciting note: there’s only a few more days until the TURN season finale!  Coming up soon: a short, reader-requested post on jewelry and accessories in the late 18th century.  (Fewer charts; more sparkly things.)

-RS

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4 thoughts on “A Tallmadge or Woodhull by any other name: TURN historical family trees

    Emma said:
    June 10, 2014 at 9:35 pm

    I assumed that the name switch regarding Ben’s dad and Abe’s older brother was to make things less confusing… A lot of the times TV networks don’t trust their viewers even with things as simple as telling two characters with the same name apart, so two Benjamin Tallmadge’s (or two Richard Woodhull’s) was a no. Obviously this rule is broken since Abe’s son is named Thomas, supposedly after his older brother, presumably to emphasize Abe’s guilt about his death and dedication to his legacy. Because, you know. Drama.

    J.A. said:
    April 26, 2016 at 10:30 am

    This is an exceexcellent resource. Thank you.

      Timothy Meadows said:
      April 17, 2017 at 4:10 pm

      Long Island Surnames is indeed an EXCELLENT resource. Through research on that site, I discovered that Robert Townsend (Culper Jr.) was my 5th cousin 5x removed. So exciting! In a way, because he had no descendants, he belongs to all of us Townsends. I hope the series doesn’t make him out to be more cranky and antisocial than the facts would seem to indicate (e.g. as in Rose’s book).

    Amy Diggett said:
    September 16, 2017 at 8:38 am

    Thank you for the clarification. I just started watching the episodes of Turn on Netflix. I am a descendant of Major Benjamin Tallmadge and last night I watched the episode revealing “Samuel’s” death and was like “that’s not correct” and pulled up my family tree and information and confirmed it was William, not Samuel, who perished as a prisoner.

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